Non-degree credentials can be a hidden gem for upward career mobility. They can offer a fast, cheap, and versatile path to a promotion, middle-class income, or a career switch.
But are certificate programs and coding bootcamps as reliable as a college degree?
Moving up the career ladder can be challenging in the U.S. without traditional postsecondary education, but today's labor market is more flexible and open to new types of training than in previous decades. In many cases, the right certificate or bootcamp can enhance your career prospects — and do so in less time than it takes to earn a degree.
What Is a Non-Degree Credential?
Non-degree credentials are certificate or certification programs that offer professionally-oriented training. Many different organizations provide them: community colleges, corporations, professional and trade associations, non-accredited entities, technical and vocational schools, and even some undergraduate colleges and universities.
Postsecondary and industry credentials can vary a lot, depending on educational and workforce training contexts. In general, there are five types of credentials you can earn:
Awarded after completing a professionally oriented course, which typically takes a year or less to finish.
Granted by industry or independent organizations based on examinations that verify skills through testing.
Legal permit required for pay in a specific occupation; often, licenses are task-specific.
Formal program of study that blends work experience with a structured plan of coursework.
Immersive instruction and project-based learning that takes up to a few months to complete.
Each credential requires different levels of competency and qualification. They also usually fulfill a specific purpose, such as training for a particular job or meeting a necessary career advancement requirement.
According to Marina Irfan, enrollment and success manager at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), job-seekers and employees enroll in non-degree programs for different but essential reasons.
"Professional education, for employees, ensures that their skills are relevant and they are staying informed on the latest developments in the industry," she said. "For job-seekers, it indicates that they are a competitive candidate with in-demand skills and training."
Credentials also might be a stepping stone to another credential, such as an occupational license or a college degree. In some occupations, such as information technology, credentials are necessary to be promoted.
"Several of our programs are essentially vocational training in that they prepare students with the knowledge to begin a chosen career path, but then also provide the defining skills required to succeed," Irfan said.
Are Non-Degree Programs Worth It?
Upskilling provides workers with additional skills or extra training. The goal is usually to make them better at their job or help them adapt to a changing industry.
In the future, more and more workers will need to upskill. According to a report by the National Skills Coalition, advances in digitization, automation, and artificial intelligence will impact at least 60% of today's jobs.
Non-degree credentials are often the quickest way for workers to upskill in response to these changes.
For workers looking to upskill, certificates can deliver an immediate impact. Credentials help workers signal that they've acquired specific skills and training, especially in response to technological changes. In a survey of professionals without a four-year degree, certificate holders reported a higher rate of full-time employment and higher incomes than those without a certificate.
Some credentials only require a few months of full-time study, while others can take a year or more to complete. However, almost all are shorter than associate degree programs. Short-term career training programs are practical for people who can't afford to spend 2-4 years in school.
For students who already have an undergraduate degree, there are also post-baccalaureate certificates. However, credentials often carry more value for adults without degrees than those who have them.
Trends in the job market suggest education will become more critical over the next decade. Economists at Georgetown University project that 70% of all jobs in 2027 will require some education beyond high school. Policymakers, employers, and higher education leaders are expanding education and workforce training programs to meet this future demand.
A job forecast by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects that 70% of job openings in 2027 will require some education beyond high school.
But while credentials have exploded in popularity, they may not be the right fit for you. As you consider your education options, take some time to think about the career you want. Research whether a certificate will help advance those career ambitions or if a traditional degree would be a better fit.
Wage Premiums Depend on Occupation, Gender
One of the most common selling points of a non-degree credential is that it's a smaller time commitment for a faster payback. But what is the wage premium for certificates and certifications?
In 2019, Strada Education Network and Gallup surveyed about 50,000 working adults between 25 and 64 who did not have college degrees. The survey found that the median annual income for credentialed workers was $45,000. The median income for a worker with no credentials was $30,000 per year.
$45,000 vs. $30,000: The median annual income for adults who hold a non-degree credential but not a postsecondary degree versus those without a credential or a degree.
The survey found that the job categories with the highest annual median income for non-degree credential holders include architecture or engineering ($85,000), computer and mathematics ($74,000), and security and protective services ($60,000). Several other categories also had annual incomes of over $50,000, such as construction and mining workers, transportation workers, and legal services.
For some professions, the income premium from a certificate or certification is as high as $25,000 per year. A few fields showed little to no advantage for having earned a credential.
Industries with Highest and Lowest Median Annual Income for Non-Degree Credential Holders
Strada and Gallup's study also found that average wages varied by gender. Men with a postsecondary certificate or industry certification reported that they earned more than twice as much as women with the same credentials. The most significant differences were in male-dominated industries, such as security services, construction, mining, architecture, and engineering.
How Much Do Credentials Cost?
The cost for a non-degree credential varies widely. While national data on the average price is unavailable, annual tuition for certificate programs at universities — for instance, Northeastern University, University of Illinois, and the University of the Potomac — ranges between $2,000-$10,000.
For certificate programs, prices typically run on a per-course or per-credit basis. For example, at Purdue University, students must complete 12 credits to receive a Gifted, Creative, and Talented Studies (GCT) certificate. Each course credit costs $397.85 for in-state and $562.38 for out-of-state students. Thus, the cost of the certificate is $4,774.20 for in-state students and $6,748.56 for out-of-state.
For comparison, Purdue's most closely related associate degree — an associate of applied science in early childhood development — requires 90 credits. The cost per credit is $371 for a total of $33,390. Meanwhile, a bachelor of science in education in early childhood requires 120 credits at $371 per credit — a total of $44,520.
Non-Degree vs. Degree Costs at Purdue University
Certificate: Gifted, Creative, & Talented (GCT) Certificate
|Cost Per Credit||$397.85 for in-state, $562.38 for out-of-state|
|Total||$4,774.20 for in-state and $6,748.56 for out-of-state|
Degree: Associate of Applied Science in Early Childhood Development
|Cost Per Credit||371|
Degree: Bachelor of Science in Education in Early Childhood
|Cost Per Credit||$371|
Source: Purdue University
Although a certificate is often faster and more affordable, in most industries it does not qualify you for the same jobs that a bachelor's degree does. It's important to understand the long-term career prospects of any credential or degree you are considering.
What Is the Perceived Value of Credentials?
Students considering online college and credential programs often ask: Will employers take my education seriously? When it comes to credentials, the answer is yes, though it can vary by industry.
Strada and Gallup's survey found that 60% of respondents with a certificate or certification believe their credentials make them more valuable to potential employers. They also reported being likely to recommend it to others who don't have a credential.
Research also shows that hiring managers will look at a resume more closely if it has a reputable credential. According to The George Washington University, certain fields — such as human resource management — give certified applicants preference over less qualified applicants.
Non-degree-holders can leverage their certifications into their next promotion or raise. At UT Austin's Center for Professional Education, which offers non-degree courses, alumni are often contacted by employers. Irfan, the school's enrollment and success manager, said that's because employers are confident that they'll have the necessary skills for a certain field.
"Employers increasingly are seeking candidates with specific skill sets who are ready to be productive on day one," Irfan said. "Certificate programs are built with significant input from industry experts and often focus on those skill sets. Several of our programs have deliverables that students can then use as a portfolio of work to demonstrate their mastery and application of the concepts they learned."
But part of the value of non-degree programs also comes from how you showcase them, she said.
"We encourage students to list their certificates on their LinkedIn profiles and resumes to increase their marketability, as employers are familiar with the credential and what it represents," Irfan said.
Non-degree credentials can be highly beneficial for adults without a college degree. For them, surveys have found that certificates and certifications can lead to higher full-time employment rates and higher incomes than adults without degrees or credentials. Non-degree programs also have a smaller time commitment than a two- or four-year degree, making them a smart investment for some careers.
But the impact of credentials varies between careers and genders, especially in male-dominated industries, and not all careers are achievable with only a certificate. Do your research and see if the credential you're seeking is the right choice for your professional goals.
Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.
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